MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s government scored a huge victory with the capture of the country’s most wanted drug lord but the cartels will remain a powerful force and could unleash a fresh wave of violence as they fight for control of his turf.
In a lightning raid early on Saturday, Mexican marines arrested Joaquin Guzman, whose dominance of the drugs trade and ability to elude the law since escaping from prison in 2001 had lent him almost mythical status.
Immortalized in songs and revered by many in his home state of Sinaloa, Guzman leaves behind a criminal organization that employs thousands and flourished even as it fought brutal turf wars with rival cartels.
Experts say his Sinaloa Cartel should have no trouble in continuing without him.
“Chapo was the strategy guy, he was the CEO, but he still has his board of directors who are running things,” said drug war expert and retired U.S. Air Force captain Sylvia Longmire.
“Day-to-day on the ground, I don’t think there is even going to be a hiccup in the drug flow,” she added.
Nevertheless, Guzman’s imprisonment could encourage rivals to try to muscle in on the turf his business empire has held for years from its base in northwestern Mexico.
For now it is a personal triumph for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December 2012 pledging to cut spiraling violence in Latin America’s second biggest economy.
Doubts about his strategy on organized crime have grown as the violence continued and his government made a risky alliance with vigilante groups in a confrontation with a drug gang in the state of Michoacan.
The arrest of Guzman offers a strong riposte to the president’s critics.
Pena Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderon staked his reputation on bringing the gangs to heel, but despite capturing or killing many capos, violence leapt during his six year term.
No-one was a more telling reminder of the Calderon government’s shortcomings than Guzman. After escaping from prison in 2001, the drug lord built up an empire and made his way onto the Forbes list of billionaires.
Pena Nieto has taken a more low key approach to fighting organized crime than Calderon, and the cross-border intelligence operation that led to Guzman’s capture is a boost for Mexican-U.S. cooperation on organized crime.
Initially focusing on the Zetas, a brutal cartel that has been behind many of the most shocking atrocities of the last few years, Pena Nieto’s government put the group on the back foot by capturing the gang’s boss Miguel Angel Trevino last July.
Murders fell by more than 16 percent during his first full year in the job, but he had hoped for a greater decline and serious problems remain.
Homicides are still well above the levels recorded when Calderon took power, and extortion and kidnapping rose last year, according to government figures.
The removal of Guzman from the scene does not mean there is any less for the cartels to play for.
Trafficking remains a highly lucrative business: according to U.S. State Department figures, the gangs send between $19-29 billion each year from the United States to Mexico.
In spite of steps to decriminalize marijuana usage in parts of the United States, the drug is still smuggled in vast quantities, and the market for harder narcotics is thriving.
Between 2008 and 2012, the amount of heroin seized at the U.S. southwest border increased by 232 percent, according to National Seizure System (NSS) data. And though cocaine seizures are down, that has been offset by higher consumption in Mexico and Europe, said Alberto Islas of consultancy Risk Evaluation.
Meanwhile, demand for Mexican methamphetamine is still enjoying “double digit” growth annually, Islas added.
Such is the size of the illicit drugs market, that by the time of his fall, Guzman was probably overseeing an empire with as many as 150,000 people in its employ, said Malcolm Beith, author of “The Last Narco”, a biography of the kingpin.
The fallout will likely be violent, he said.
“Whenever the leadership of a drug cartel is compromised, there are turf wars at lower levels,” Beith told Reuters.
“We’ve seen increased violence already in recent months in Sinaloa since the capture or death of several high-ranking lieutenants, I expect more to follow.”
Blows against capos have sparked conflagration in the past. Killings surged in the border city of Tijuana during a lengthy battle for control of the local cartel following the capture of kingpin Francisco Arellano Felix in 2006.
Guzman’s lieutenant Ismael Zambada could now take over but he is over 65 and younger rivals may seek to exploit the sudden opening.
In the meantime, the government must press home the attack on the Sinaloa Cartel, said Michael Braun, managing partner of security consultancy SGI Global who was formerly a top official at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
“Now is the time to throw every available asset and resource, Mexican and U.S., at the cartel and relentlessly strike at every aspect of the organization,” Braun told Reuters.
But Mexico’s efforts to stamp out organized crime will fail if the government does not do more to tackle the corruption that has sustained Guzman and his ilk for years, said Edgardo Buscaglia, a crime expert at Columbia University.
“The politicians who protected El Chapo aren’t being arrested, nor are the businessmen who worked with him,” he said. “Without that, the arrests end up being inconsequential for dismantling the organization.”
Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, Gabriel Stargardter, Anahi Rama and Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray